So You Want To Be A Waiter

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Daily Archives: May 1, 2009

A nice, well-rounded article on tipping from The Austin Chronicle

Wine post for the 1st of the month

Organic wines.

Some people really want them. So, the question is, which, if any, are on my wine list so that I can look like an expert and suggest one when someone asks?

First of all, what does the term “organic wine” really mean?

First of all, what doesn’t it mean?

It doesn’t mean “no sulfites”. All wines have sulfites to one degree or another. Only when the levels exceed 10+ ppm does a label have to have the warning, “Contains sulfites”. What are sulfites, you ask?  Don’t worry about it. If you’re sensitive to them, you’ll know it. However, if you really must know, they are a naturally-occuring byproduct of the fermentation process called sulfur dioxide. Some winemakers add additional amounts during the winemaking process because SO2 is handy as an anti-microbial agent and helps keep the nasties down. The downside to this is that some people are sensitive to this compound and get reactions as varied as headaches, flushed faces and rashes.

Organic winemakers don’t add any additional sulfites. Simple as that.

There are varying levels of organic. It can be as simple as not using any “non-natural pesticides” (there are things like Neem oil that have natural repellant properties that one might use) or any commercial chemical fertilizers, additives or other possibly harmful chemicals or unneccesary filtering of the wine or as complex as creating a whole natural ecosystem featuring beneficial insects, microbacteria, watershed management and a reduction in the use of highly automated processing equipment.  This is called “biodynamic”.

How do you know which approach is taken by specific wine operations? You really don’t unless you do some research on your own. Those wineries who have set up elaborate micro-ecosystems are rightly proud of the time, money and effort put into their property and their product so they are likely to give you all the information that you’ll ever need.

From the Organic Consumers Organization  (this tells you the different classifications of organic labeling):

“Along came the National Organic Program (NOP), also part of the USDA. The NOP’s goal has been to set guidelines for the processing and labeling of organic products and to maintain the “National List” of allowed and prohibited substances. According to the NOP and the ATF who have stated that all label approvals filed with them must comply with the USDA relating to the NOP, there are four categories that organic wines can claim: 100% Organic, Organic, Made With Organic Ingredients, and Some Organic Ingredients. Today, these categories define organic wine so understanding the differences among the four categories is important if you want to know what you are really buying”.

Keep in mind that “organic” is as much a legal term as it is a description of the end product. You have to meet certain criteria and pay certain fees to be able to legally claim your product as organic. There are my fine “natural wines” that are just as “organic” (and perhaps more so than some organics) whose winemakers choose not to get certified as organic.

A common misconception is that if a wine isn’t filtered, it must be organic. Not true. An unfiltered wine simply means that it hasn’t been filtered. Most organic wines use the least amount of filtration possible. They also avoid fining, which is using animal products such as bladders or egg whites to drag suspended particles to the bottom of the vat, where they can be siphoned off. If your guest is a vegan, this will be of concern to them, but really, it’s sort of up to them to know which winemakers forbid fining in their products. I’m not sure if fining is specifically forbidden in an “organic wine” – perhaps I’ll do some more research on that one. If anyone has the answer, feel free to let me know but include a good source for verification.

The main thing for you as a server is to have a short list of “go-tos” relevant to your list. The less you fumble around tring to give an answer, the more confident your guest will be in your competence, and this will hopefully result in a better tip for you and a better dining experience for your guest. 

I obviously don’t have your wine list in front of me, so I’m going to list some major players in the field. This is a very short list. You can google to find other brands and you can ask your wine buyer to keep you up-to-date with any bottles that fall into the categories or characterizations that I’ve talked about. “No sir, we don’t have any “certified organic” wines, but we have this Robert Mondavi Cabernet that comes from a winery using strong natural practices. In fact, they were one of the pioneers in sustainability and ecologically sound practices”. You know – that sort of thing.

ORGANIC WINERIES (including all categories of organic)

Bonterra. One of the pioneers in the field: www.bonterra
Spottswoode. A classic maker of upscale wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon:
Robert Sinskey: They do Biodynamic and Organic:

Robert Mondavi Winery:


Wente Vineyards:
Beringer Winery: (this applies mainly to their upscale products)

As I said, this is a very short list, but it’s enough to get you started. Use the internet  and your wine rep as a resource. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be when someone says, “I only drink organic wines. Have any”?

Food item of the month

The food item for May is not actually food but an essential kitchen item for anyone who even cooks a little – the mortar and pestle.

There are several types of mortar and pestles, ranging from metal and ceramic ones to natural stone ones. Unless you simply like the visual of a shining brass mortar and pestle sitting on your countertop, I recommend staying with a stone model. The name comes from the component parts – the mortar is the bowl and the pestle is the pounder. This is one of the earliest kitchen appliances known to man and it, and its variants, are still a vital part of many food cultures.

There are two types of stone mortar and pestles – the porous and non-porous kind. The discerning cook will have both kinds. The porous kind is usually made from volcanic material while the non-porous type made from marble or granite. You can distinguish the two by feeling the inside of the bowl. The porous type is rough while the non-porous type is smooth as glass. There are advantages to both, which is why it’s not a bad thing to have both. The porous type does a much better job pulverizing and takes less effort, but, due to its rough surface, is much harder to keep clean and eliminate the aroma from the previous batch of whatever you made. The non-porous type is as easy to keep clean as a marble countertop and doesn’t hold an odor if you clean it properly.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article rating mortar and pestles and this solid granite model was the winner:

A granite mortar and pestle

A granite mortar and pestle

You can get it here:

You can get them in various sizes, but I suggest that, as with many things,  bigger is better.

If you have a store or international market that sells Thai food, you might be able to find a set locally. The mortar and pestle is essential for the making of Thai curry pastes.  In Thailand, people use it in place of a food processor or blender, but even if you use a food processor to finish your curry pastes like most of us do, you still need to use a mortar and pestle to grind your herbs and spices. A food processor chops and minces but a mortar and pestle grinds, which extracts the most flavor and texture from things like whole garlic, leafy herbs like basil and chile peppers.

If you make a lot of Mexican food, you might consider a Molcajete y Tejolote, which is usually made from rough volcanic rock like lava or basalt. Here’s what one looks like:

Molcajete y Tejolote

Molcajete y Tejolote

You can get it, as well as several other styles of mortar and pestles here:

Beware of fake or cheap Molcajete y Tejolotes. Sometimes they’re just highly compressed sand or other inferior material. You don’t want your Mole Amarillo to taste like something a mole in your garden would chew through.

This style (and any mortar with a rough textured inside bowl) needs to be seasoned. You can find the instructions at the above vendor’s web page.

The Japanese have a glazed and wood mortar and pestle called a suribachi. This is for real specialists, so I would consider this highly optional. You use this for seeds, cooked rice, soft nuts, etc. The pestle (the pounder) is made of wood as not to damage the delicate bowl. This should definitely not be used for anything requiring much force:

Suribachi from Gourmet Sleuth

Suribachi from Gourmet Sleuth

You can buy it here:
A good morar and pestle is a lifetime and invaluable addition to your kitchen. Use it often and keep it clean and it will reward you with years of service. Plus, they just look plain cool, don’t you think?

A new month

May – the month of possibilities. It may stay spring for another month. Maybe the economy will pick up and people can keep their houses. It may stop raining before I have to build an ark – you know, stuff like that.

Well, with a new month comes new possibilities. For us waiters, we should look at each month as a time for self-evaluation. What bad habits are we slipping into? What new foods and culinary procedures can we learn about so that we are a more expert waiter? What new wines can we learn about? How can we become more efficient during times of the tall grass? How can we polish our movements that much more?

Come to think of it, this advice is useful for any worker, so if you’re a civilian, take a look at yourself as well. In these uncertain economic times, it would behoove all of us to be brilliant at our jobs.

Think of the first of each month as your yearly smoke detector battery check.

I’m going to try and feature one food item or dish recipe, one wine, and one culinary concept on the first day of each month. I’m hoping to also pepper the month with such little nuggets, so stick around.